Monday, August 18, 2008

Improve Your Chess VII: The Habits of Talent

The Incident of the Lucky Pen
"Darling, just give me the damned pen."

"What pen?" she says, so innocent. "You don't have time to look for it now. Just take that one instead," she goes on, wafting me toward some grotty biro.

"What pen? The lucky pen. The black one. The one I told you about. The one I won with last Tuesday. I left it on the table this morning."

"The sleek-looking one? That writes so nicely? Not seen it. It's probably in your bag."

"It's not - I -" and then, I see it.

There on the bookshelf, tucked inside one of her folders.

She knows I know, she sees I see.

Across the table we eye each other.

Who's closest?

Who'll get their first?

A mad dash and . . . I grab it first. Lucky, I say to myself, scampering toward the door, feeling ready at last for the game tonight.

"You know it makes no difference," she says glumly. "It's just a pen. But good luck!"

. . . and, yes, of course I still know now what I also knew then. The pen was not a lucky pen, invested with magic properties. It was just a pen, black ink, available from a newsagent around the corner, along with dozens like it. So what that I had won with it the week before? I also won wearing a certain pair of socks, having washed my hair with a certain shampoo, having been a certain number of minutes early or late, having had a certain sandwich for lunch, and none of these things I thought of as lucky. And I know they make no difference. Not like my lucky pen.

What was I thinking? I had never been a superstitious person, after all. But as I strolled relaxed and confident to the club, I wasn't thinking about much at all apart from getting to the game along with my lucky pen.

Trying to understand superstition
But a few weeks before, I'd been thinking a lot about superstition, luck, the little acts of ritual top players acquire, their odd beliefs. Like seventh World Champion Vassily Smyslov's belief he was kept alive after his eyesight failed for some divine purpose, related in some unknown way to harmony and endgame studies. Like twelfth World Champion Anatoly Karpov only washing his hair after defeats. Like thirteenth World Champion Garry Kasparov's belief that his lucky number was, well, number thirteen. Like Grandmaster James Plaskett's beliefs that coincidences weren't just coincidences, something suggested too by Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson in the Acknowledgments to one of his books. Like . . . the list could go on and on.

I'd been thinking how these little beliefs must have some benefit to the players who employed them. Something along these lines: what's the point of worrying about the result of your next game, if you've managed to convince yourself it's particularly related to a certain pair of gloves? Then all your anxiety, all your nerves - all these little things that punch around before your games like little fists in your stomachs - could simply be smoothly tucked away by use of superstition - in a favourite pair of gloves.

Or, you're at the board itself, and you start to lose track of the position, miscalculate, and suddenly all your doubts balloon up - wouldn't it be nice to puncture them by tapping on a favourite tie-pin? That is, your lucky tie-pin, the one you always fiddle with when calculating clearly? I'd been thinking that if I could really get myself to believe something like that, then maybe I would be able to arrive at the board itself in a better state of mind. How about a lucky pen? Then I could look at my pen as though it determined all the luck in the world, and so concentrate fully only on the board itself.

Would I try it? Maybe. After all, one thing that improving at chess had taught me, was that I wouldn't know in advance what would work, what would not work. Maybe superstition would work, maybe it wouldn't. Who knew? But I wanted to work one thing out first. Why were more talented players frequently more superstitious than less talented players? My guess was as follows in the next three paragraphs.

Why are strong players superstitious? Why aren't weaker ones?
The way I guessed it was that for the most talented players, the world outside of chess is never demystified. No nihilist biology teacher ever convinces them that all their actions and feelings and thoughts are nothing but confused ciphers for the brutal and basic wishes of their genes - they are too busy playing around with the chess set in their desk draw, coming to terms with the passed pawn's lust to expand. They are never disappointed to find out there is no tooth fairy swapping their milk teeth for coins, or no Santa delivering gifts, or no real Lord of the Rings - because last weekend some company magicked them off to Moscow, where an ancient white-bearded creature - just like Gandalf in fact - clarified for them what black gets in return for the Sicilian ..Rxc3 exchange sacrifice. Meanwhile, because of their talent, the world on the chess board becomes increasingly demystified as they grow-up. Maybe there are dragons in the real world, maybe not - but certainly not in the Sicilian, because they have mastered the logic of this oddly-named variation by the age of ten, and all the intricacies follow by their late teens. For the talented chess player, the world is thoroughly mystical, enchanted with irrational forces, the whims of the goddess Caissa wafting around arbitrarily: but the chess board is the one objective plane of cause-and-effect. The phrase fire on the board is just an advertiser's mystical metaphor for dynamics.

For the less talented player, like myself, things are the other way around. The chess board remains a mystical place, full of impossible goings-on: Grandmasters perform incredible feats of calculation, make the International Master who creamed me look like an idiot - what . . . ! ! ! And positions we are sure are winning turn out dead-lost, and we practice against computer programmes three-pieces up and they magically turn it around, random combinations appearing out of nothing, like a sky of crows flung from a magician's hat, and all the remarkable improbabilities the world would never allow come alive. The great players of the past aren't just great players - they're titans, or magicians, or whirlwinds, or pythons. Elsewhere, we've already learnt otherwise, learnt the world's cruel lessons. That the world is not flat, as our childhood feelings tell us. That the horizon not infinite, that the stars are there all the time, that the sun does not rotate around us. And so, thanks to this disenchantment, this initiation into the dry factual state of being called adulthood, we've already learnt to dismiss our innermost feelings as fabrications, our fundamental intuitions as idiocies - already learnt that the miraculous is impossible amidst the deterministic routines of the real world. Impossible. Impossible anywhere, that is, but amidst the beautiful unpredictability of the chess board, where all laws come undone.

What does all this mean? The talented chess player benefits from living amidst a highly-subjective world, whilst the chess board for him remains solely the realm of objectivity. All the strange habits of talent acquired in the real world - all the superstitions, the lucky objects, the little rituals - make perfect sense to the talented chess player, who does not know he is constructing totem poles in his shirt pockets. The less talented player scoffs at these habits, because he has never had cause to create them for himself. But for the talented player, these little acts of madness, the momentary subjective nothings, function to keep the world as crazy it is, so they can come to the chess board and once again find it the zone of crystalline truth and artistic clarity, and meet the facts of the fight with as much objectivity humanly possible.

Or something like that. Out of all this thought, anyway, came the following basic reasoning: talented players acquire, by accident, strangely-subjective habits in the real world. These paradoxically function to keep their thoughts at the chess board itself as objective as possible. But whilst less talented players such as myself do not acquire such habits as a matter of course, there was no reason not to choose to develop them consciously and deliberately. That way we can make use of the various functions of superstition and ritual, such as concentration, calmness, focus, and so on.

And so, I bought myself a lucky pen.

No-one knows in advance what will help improve their chess, what not. However, there are reasons to believe that superstitions or similar based in the real world and off the chess board help talented players achieve their full potential at the chess board itself. Paradoxically, this is because they allow the talented player to be more objective at the chess board. Less-talented players do not acquire such superstitions normally, but can acquire them by choice. However, this should all be kept in perspective. Whilst I did acquire myself a lucky pen, and whilst my chess did improve, I think the majority of the improvement came from more direct methods such as those previously discussed.

The final round of the Staunton Memorial starts today at 12noon at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, and will probably finish between 5 and 6pm. So several of us are going along after work at 5pm to see the games, and we plan to go out after, have a drink or two, and so on. All are invited to join us.


Anonymous said...

I had a lucky pen. Just a simple biro, nothing special.
But I was on an 18 game unbeaten run and had to face someone graded way above me (my 160 to their 230).
Expecting to lose, I had to decide whether to save my pen from this impending loss to retain its luck or to play and hope the luck continued after my certain defeat. I decided that I would feel cheap and dirty if I rested the pen and would be doing the pen a dishonour (how could it 'perform' for me after that!). I played using my lucky pen, and drew!!(right down to drawn king and pawn ending). The tale had a sad ending though. I kept my biro in a certain place. However, someone was tidying up, and my 'like any other biro' pen was lost amongst all the other plain biros. Damn! Never been the same. I miss that pen...

ejh said...

Thje first thing about leading chessplayers, which perhaps aplies to leading sportsmen and women in general, is that they often have a very odd worldview which is the product of spenind most of your time dedictaed to the practice of beating other people in something of little intrinsic value (and excelling at it). There is not much sense of society involved and not much sense of normality, either. They may also be very disinclined to take much notice of what anybody says other than people who are superior to them in their field of excellence - which quite likely helps them in their chess, but doesn't help them at all in understanding anything else.

The second thing is that however talented they are, they are aware of how much can go wrong and how much is left to chance. Perhaps they are even more aware of this because they play so well.

To my mind, these things - abstraction from society, assumption of superiority over others and insecurity - make them particularly vulnerable to superstition. (Mind you, superstition is rife in society generally, for all sorts of reasons, so it's possible that they're just vulnerable in a certain way rather than being more vulnerable than other people.)